A Soft Landing

This is a short little story about the unexpected glories of aging. Between Christmas and the new year, I had the chance to get away for a few days. Usually my husband and I visit friends at their mountain cabin for New Year’s Eve, and on the way I sneak in a short but vital one night visit with my sister. When I found out our friends were not going to their cabin this year, my sister and I had to put our heads together quickly to be sure we got to see one another.

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Because we just need to. That’s why.

While I was searching for a meeting spot somewhere between our two homes, my friend R. mentioned that he too wanted to have a short getaway, and so he made us a trio. My online search wasn’t yielding much. It seems people book ahead for holiday trips. When I don’t immediately find what I want on line I tend to look more and more and more until I am totally flustered. In this case, as a last resort I typed in “state parks close to Knoxville” instead of “TN state parks close to Knoxville” and VOILA! Up it came! Cumberland Falls State Park in Corbin, Kentucky. And guess what? They had just ONE available cabin, a two story, two bedroom, two bath with kitchen and fireplace. I’ll take it!!  I shouted into the phone.

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View from the stairs of the cabin.

When I left for Cumberland Falls on the 28th I had made few concrete plans, perhaps because by that time I had had  three house guests for eight days.  I just threw some clothes in a bag, grabbed a couple of bottles of wine and hit the road with my friend R. The easy six hour ride I envisioned did not take place, as it rained hard on us all the way to Nashville, all the way to Bowling Green, and all the rest of the way. I’m a cautious driver in the rain, and so did not use my cruise control one time.  We drove through the dark wet night, two tired travelers, one with a cramped right leg, until we saw the welcoming lights of the  the 1930s era DuPont Lodge.

Soon we were at the executive two story cabin, enjoying the spread prepared by Ellen, who had not been delayed by rain. We could not have been more thrilled to simply put on our pajamas, drink a glass of wine, and eat cheese and crackers.

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The little table cloth belonged to my mother, who knew how to make folks feel comfortable. 

We found that each of us had brought little treats for the others. Ellen had brought adult coloring books. I had brought face cream and little facial kits, just in case, and R., a set of essential oils to share. No hikers ever smelled better.

In the morning we of course reconnoitered our surroundings by the light of day. Our cabins were situated on a ridge overlooking the Cumberland River.  About a fourth of a mile away was the Lodge, where we walked for a standard country breakfast.

After admiring the CCC  era lodge construction and lovely view from the restaurant windows, we made the important decisions of the day. To whit,  we would first walk whatever trails we could. Afterwards we would procure supplies, meaning wine. Ellen, who had approached the park from another direction, allowed as how she had passed the “Liquor King” on her way in. Third, we would build a fire with the firelogs we had purchased from the lodge. And finally, we would watch Transparent.

The weather was brisk but not too wet or too cold. And we three old folks set out for the woods.Let me tell you a little bit about the park. Known as “The Niagara Of The South”, the park is most famous for  its seven story waterfall on the Cumberland River.

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During full moons, a spectacular “moon bow” effect is seen on the water. We did not get to see that but enjoyed what we did see.

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The trails are well marked and maintained. There are  camping, hiking, horseback riding and water activities available depending on the season. We were fortunate to be able to rent the very last cabin for our stay.

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Just visible through the bars of the balcony is the warning that we are on a cliff. 

The first day we chose what we thought would be a manageable trail. After we left the Visitor’s Center we saw few other people. Sometimes we talked, but often we were each silently contemplating our own lives, watching our feet trudge through the fallen leaves. Though the scenery would no doubt be more striking in one of the three other seasons, we still found numerous photo opportunities.

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After several hours of hiking, or maybe it was only walking, we called it quits so that we could head into civilization. We had a good little drive before we pulled into Corbin. As I cruised down the main drag, Ellen kept a lookout for the “Liquor King” and sure enough there it was on the right. By the time we chose our wine and provisions we were eager to return to our cabin and build a fire.

Soon we were all in our pajama pants, reeking of soothing essential oils but ready to eat our cheese, hummus, fruit and cut veggies. We toasted to our collective health, for we had finished a somewhat arduous hike, which many folks our age cannot attempt. Our fire that night was not a success. Having no matches or extra kindling, we resorted to using toilet paper to stoke up the fire. Don’t even try it.

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Do note the handy toilet paper.

Finally we were ready to start watching Transparent. I had already seen it, but my companions had not. After watching several episodes our commentary was hotter than the fire. The writing: genius, the acting: genius, the characters: self centered and extremely annoying. ( If you are not familiar with this award winning Amazon Prime series, it is about a man in his 60s who comes out as transgendered. But the show is also about the lingering effects of secrets in families.)

Perhaps it was the combination of the thinking time we had during the first day and whatever we were reading ( I was reading a biography of Winston’s Churchill’s wife, aptly named Clementine ) along  with watching the dysfunctional Pfefferman family that evening, that gave rise to our conversations the second day.

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For a time we talked about what seemed important to each of us at the moment. R. was focused on the need to take pictures to record memories, not just for his family, but also for him. Ellen shared how she had, like me, been unable to take to scrapbooking. But we  all acknowledged that our memories had gotten somewhat tricky, and that we needed to make records of our time however we were able to do so. What was  the truth anyway, I wondered, writhing mentally, as I am wont to do,  at not being able to reconcile the various threads of the Churchill’s marriage.

Ellen, no doubt having grown tired of hearing about Clementine Churchill and the unfairness of it all,  mentioned some  tribulations of a family she knew. As tribulations go, they were of the kind that could happen to anyone.

Suddenly, the conversation changed from what happened to a certain family to what we know now that we are old. The three of us had entered a space where we did not have to censor ourselves for fear of upsetting someone else. Because by the time we  live past fifty, we have either lived through trying situations or known someone else who has. And we  can’t live through these things without coming out a little wiser at the end. We could admit our thoughts and conclusions now, for we were all past the stage of saying that these things could not or should not be so.

A family is no guarantee of happiness. 

In fact sometimes you have to protect yourself from your family.

You may have to face an obstacle or situation that you thought only happened to others, not to you or yours. In fact you will certainly have to do this. 

Some things don’t end. They are managed. But they don’t go away.

Dreams are not for some future date, but for today, for we are not guaranteed tomorrow.

This may sound depressing, but it was a moment of refreshing honesty. No one tells you these things. You must learn them for yourself. It felt good to know we had all paid our dues.

As we sat at the breakfast table, we felt the comfort of being old together, of knowing that we had all learned hard life lessons, and that we could openly say so.

After breakfast just as we had done the day before, we struck out for the woods, stopping to admire carved out boulders, caves, and waterfalls.

cumberland falls-178We had gotten a late start because of our leisurely breakfast.

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View from the back verandah of the Lodge.

Ellen was in a happier mood because that day she had actually remembered to wear her new hiking shoes. It seems some parts of growing are not profound, only silly.

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We passed through some muddy spots close to the river, where we each had to navigate in our own way to get to dry land.

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Once, R. who was in the lead at that time, lost his footing on a  slippery slope, unable to gain purchase on anything, and landed on his posterior at the bottom of a hill. Ellen was in front of me, and reached him first. I heard her ask if he was alright,  and he said he was. Then she asked, “Was it a soft landing?”

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That phrase has stuck with me. Soft landings. I think that is what we were all trying to say at breakfast. There are sadnesses and disappointments in life, in ways we never could have expected, but when we accept that these things are bound to happen, there is peace. Because there are sadnesses and disappointments, we decide give up on certain dreams and grieve our losses. In the process we learn to cherish the very simple but meaningful aspects of our lives: smiles, memories, small acts of service, being present for others. We find we can thrive on these. Productive lives have been made of less.

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When I was younger I struggled like anyone else, but without the knowledge that comes from experience, the knowledge that tells me that in the end I will find peace, increased awareness, humility,  or just an enhanced ability to appreciate daily life.

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In the woods, we three old folks were making our respective ways the best we could. In the end we chose a shorter route back to where we had begun, for the sun was setting faster than we expected.  Sometimes we became winded and longed to be back at the cabin. I found myself daydreaming of taking a piping hot bath upon my return. R. was no doubt wondering about his muddy pants, as he had brought only one pair. But even as we hiked the steep paths, we knew we could look forward to another cozy evening of sitting in front of a fire, warm in our pajamas. We were confident of  providing ourselves  a soft landing.

May you all find soft landings in the year ahead.

 

 

It’s All For You

I often miss out on time limited events. I am either out of town or have  just breezed into another town a day or two too late to take advantage of something. Missing out on things I would have liked to attend brings out a separate category of chagrin. And powerlessness. Missing the event means missing the experience as well as the memories I would have made, along the feelings I imagine I would have had about both. Woe is me!

But this summer fortune and opportunity finally aligned in my life.  My husband and I took a road trip to North Carolina. He is partial to the Asheville area because he went to Montreal every summer as a child. And the area is so beautiful that even though I had recently been to Asheville with my girls, I didn’t mind going back with him. After all we wouldn’t be doing the same things.

As a special treat we decided to start off our trip with a weekend in Winston Salem to visit my sister. While on the way I heard on NPR that  the last day of Maya Angelou’s estate sale would be held….would be held….  did I dare hope… could it be….. THE SAME DAY I WAS ARRIVING IN WINSTON-SALEM!!!!!!!!untitled-325

Have mercy. All I had to do was get from Knoxville to Winston-Salem and join in line in time and I would be allowed to enter her home free of charge. Sadly, my sister had to work at the library that day, so I would have to do my best to represent without her. My husband and I  left Knoxville that  Saturday morning, heading toward Winston Salem at a disconcerting 65 miles per hour. My stomach churned with anxiety as I wondered if my husband knew what a risk he was taking by doing something as absurd as trying to stick so close to the speed limit. This was an eighty mile an hour journey if I ever saw one.  Did I want to stop for lunch? No. Did I need to stop to go to the bathroom. No. Did I want anything to drink? No, because then I might need to go to the bathroom. And I was not going to stop.

Eventually we did have to stop for gas and crawl through a traffic jam after a wreck on the interstate before heading straight to Ms. Angelou’s home. Because we were in a tiny Fiat we found a parking space in front of the house. My husband pulled up to the house and I leaped out of the car like a stunt car driver and into the line in her front yard. By the time he parked the car twenty more folks were behind me. Two hours remained of the sale.

For me, part one of the sale was the festive air outside the sale. This was no ordinary estate sale crowd, full of whiskered old men looking for yard tools, or bargain savvy couples looking for a good deal on a barely used mattress. No, we were all pilgrims who had come for the experience more than for whatever artifact might still be available at the end of the sale. Word passed down through the line that there was nothing left but books. Ah, we all nodded, pleased. To leave with a book would suit all of us just fine. About twenty minutes after I joined the line, a policeman walked to the back of the line and closed it. No more pilgrims would be admitted.

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A kinder, gentler estate sale crowd.

Ever so slowly we inched toward the house, chatting with one another to pass the time.  Two sisters had driven in from Raleigh for the sale. The couple in front of us had left their baby with a sitter to attend. Bottled water was for sale from several vendors. And this police lady wanted to make friends with my husband.untitled-117 I wonder if Ms. Angelou had found the city as welcoming? I hope so.

And then I was in! The instant camaraderie with my fellow estate sellers was somewhat dampened by the crush of all the seekers who had already gained entrance to the home. I admit that I briefly visualized myself shoving through the crowds, flinging aside fellow book lovers who formed inconvenient bottlenecks in the hallways. But then, there was Dr. Angelou’s gaze upon me almost everywhere I went. In my mind I could hear her say, “Slow down, young lady. we’re civilized in this house.”untitled-336

Don't you run in my house!

Don’t you run in my house!

Suitably chastened, I made my way through the crowded, overheated rooms.

At least SHE wasn't bothered by the heat!

At least SHE wasn’t bothered by the heat!

There really was nothing left except books and expensive art. But mostly books. And oh, what a wonderland of books. This woman was interested in EVERYTHING: poetry, history, fiction, publisher’s proofs, cookbooks, gardening, – heck, she had the entire Dewey Decimal system represented. The senses of spiritual, emotional, and intellectual richness struck me wherever I turned. Why, I lamented, oh why had I not offered  my services as a menial helper in order in exchange  for access to her books, or even to have had a chance to meet her, while she was still alive? Finally I descended into to her book packed basement which was full of even more seekers avidly browsing the shelves.untitled-118

I conducted a random poll of facial expressions in the basement and quickly determined that every person there wished the same things I did. It was too late now in this life to meet Dr. Angelou, so we would have to do the next best thing. We would all leave with a book she had owned. If we were fortunate, maybe we would happen upon  a book she loved, a book she had held in her hands while her brain arranged some fresh new wisdom to share with the world.

I flipped through book after book but not in the leisurely fashion I would have hoped. Should I purchase books I had already read but loved, knowing that the fact that It had belonged to Dr. Angelou would add an extra level of specialness? Or should I look for something new? And how many books did I need anyway? Shouldn’t I be choosing books for those folks not fortunate enough to be here today?

Everybody was choosing something!

Everybody was choosing something!

In the end I think Maya guided my choices. I paid for an armload of books, each of which had Dr. Angelou’s nameplate or signature inside. The sale was arranged so that after one paid, one exited through the house’s lovely grounds. I poked my head into the guest house and lingered on the patio. Each step brought me closer to the gate and the end of my personal glimpse into the life of a remarkable woman.untitled-351

untitled-341Once I left her home the experience lived on. My sister Ellen was the first to choose from the books I had purchased, opting for a book about the Harlem Renaissance. The next to choose were my daughter and son in law, who selected The Remains Of The Day and a volume by Thomas Merton. I set aside a book about Scott Joplin for one of my sons. I happily took the remaining book, a biography of a female painter unknown to me. As enjoyable as it had been to briefly own all the books, giving them away was even more so.

As a final unexpected surprise, and I can barely believe this is true, my daughter found an original, hand written poem by Dr. Angelou inside Thomas Merton on Saint Bernard.  I realize that I did not find the poem so it’s not really my tale to tell, but I choose to think the poem could have just as well been meant for me. After all, Dr. Angelou, who once thought Shakespeare was a little black girl,  did say, “The poetry was written for you. It’s all for you.”

We do all share in the beauty and wisdom of the written word. Such treasures are meant to be shared. If a little black girl in Stamps, Arkansas can feel that Shakespeare spoke to her, I can believe that Maya’s words and her world could be meant for me, a white middle class grandmother whose forebears wouldn’t have let her walk through their front doors. Even if I didn’t get to read the poem, which has been sent to her archives, I feel certain that she would have wanted to speak to me. She would have wanted to share her home, her work, her library and her legacy freely with people who would then pass the gift on to others. May we all be so generous.untitled-337

Lessons From A Suitcase

On Monday night I sat on the floor of my daughter’s old room, contemplating the yawning mouth of her enormous  brown suitcase. I had just emptied said suitcase of what few items still remained in it after my daughter’s week long visit, in order to repack it for her return trip.  How unfair, I said to myself, that Mothers not only have to let their daughters leave home, but they also have to help them pack their clothes. Separating my grandson’s clothes out from my daughter’s clothes, I sniffed to myself that this was just like having to go out in the yard and pick your own switch. If you’re from the South you’ll understand that reference.

We don't mess around in the South.

We don’t mess around in the South.

For a week I had been luxuriating in a visit from my daughter Cameron and my angel grandson Micah. ( For those of you who don’t know, Cameron and Micah live in Pasadena with their darling Daddy, who was busy this week at a conference and unable to join them.)  It was the best kind of visit, the kind that is not prompted by a certain event or obligation other than to glory in occupying the same space. The lack of planned activities meant that my husband and I were granted  the wondrous gift of having our daughter and grandson  all to ourselves. Aaah.

As I folded little rompers and onesies, I mentally unfurled  the memories of all our fun together. Drinking coffee in a leisurely fashion in the morning, with Micah playing at our feet. auhgust 2015-61

Not to mention the help with the dishwasher!

Not to mention the help with the dishwasher!

Hearing a sweet tiny voice talking to his stuffed bear in his pack and play.auhgust 2015-17 Having two grandchildren play  together, even if the older one is afraid of the younger one. auhgust 2015-155

The Mommies with their babies.

The Mommies with their babies.

Experiencing the kindness of folks in Memphis.

Our waitress wrote a thank you note on our receipt because we cleaned up Micah's high chair. AND she comped us five dollars!

Our waitress wrote a thank you note on our receipt because we cleaned up Micah’s high chair. AND she comped us five dollars!

Micah appreciated being given the run of the bra store. Would they do that in California, one wonders?

Micah appreciated being given the run of the bra store. Would they do that in California, one wonders?

Having my daughter, who at 18  “had to get out of the South” eager to get all up in the grit and grind of Memphis.That’s right; now WE’RE the cool ones! ( By the way, her glowing account of her visit can be found here.auhgust 2015-47

Dead asleep at the beer joint.

Dead asleep at the beer joint.

And so was this baby after grinding it at the zoo.

And so was this baby after grinding it at the zoo.

Watching my daughter with her own Daddy, carrying Micah home.auhgust 2015-122

Glorious.

The only sad note was that Cameron couldn’t share her fun with her husband. We hated that he had to miss, for example, Micah swinging at a beer glass and shattering it, or Micah whapping his head on my travertine floor. It just didn’t feel right not to have him here with the rest of us.

Now, having separated Micah’s things into piles, I began to stack and roll them up, a technique I have used throughout the years in order to fit more things into the ugly brown suitcase. I hate you suitcase, I said silently, and would have stomped my foot on the floor for good measure except the baby was asleep. I felt I had reason to detest  this selfish bag, with its seductive expanding compartments, always luring my daughter further away from home.

I would put a photo of the suitcase here, but why would I photograph such a thing?

Like most parents, I didn’t exactly realize that when I was gracious enough to allow my daughter to leave home for college that she wasn’t ever coming back. It was the ugly brown suitcase that taught me that lesson. First we had to cram it full for college, 750 miles away. Soon my daughter’s course of study would lead her to  Russia for a semester. Dutifully I rolled and packed fluffy coats and durable boots into the behemoth bag. I secreted little notes in her coat pockets. It was a comfort to me to think of her so far away, finding a note from home.

After Russia the trips away seemed constant. She retuned once to St. Petersburg, then graduated, then drove across the country for graduate school. Inevitably, the night before she left, instead of licking my wounds,  I was creatively engineering  cowboy boots, furry coats, mens’ oversized shirts, or whatever her current fashion interest was, inside Mr. Suitcase. I was not gentle with the suitcase.  Take these belts and clunky bead necklaces, sir, and overweight bags be damned! 

My daughter’s comings and goings eventually led to graduation, marriage, motherhood and the carving out of a novel career. Now I’d had her for a week, taking her to see things that didn’t used to exist last time she lived here. That was fun enough, but it was more than just fun.auhgust 2015-83

Because here’s the thing about Cameron. I don’t say this just because she is my daughter. It  just so happens that she  is just a pure  joy to be around. I promise you would want her for a friend, and not just because she’s brilliant and interesting.  Those are fine qualities in a friend, but what stands out in Cameron is her love for others. She is never too busy to do something thoughtful for someone else, something that shows she cares. She is consistently warm and encouraging. Getting her to myself for a week felt like going to a luxurious spa, one that allows thirteen month old babies.

Spa bound!

Spa bound!

My daughter and I jammed in  the rolled items, along with one million plastic baby bottles, and added a new stuffed bear, Micah’s souvenir from the zoo. Cameron had said over and over how much fun she had had being in Memphis. She hated to leave, but she and Micah really missed Daddy. We had missed him as well on all our jaunts. And oh, how he missed his little family this week!

Who wouldn't miss this face?

Who wouldn’t miss this face?

I zipped up Mr. Ugly brown suitcase, packed tight with treasures. Reflecting on how the family would reunite the next  morning, I realized this ubiquitous mud brown bag had yet another lesson to teach me. My heart swelled as I pictured Micah’s Daddy swooping him up in one arm while pulling my daughter close. They are a family now, making a firm foundation for Micah’s future, and that is as it should be.  For this trip my daughter packed bottles and baby clothes. One day it will be jeans, hoodies, and enormous shoes. That is also how it should be. It is right and I am glad. We are always preparing for the next step of our journey whether we realize it or not.

Thanks, Mr. Suitcase. I guess you’re not so bad after all. 

The Return of the Whiteway Girls

Long ago when I was a child I used to play with the other girls on Whiteway Drive, where I lived.  When we got together, big plans ensued, because someone would  always  have an inspiration. Why don’t we all get our Barbie stuff and play on Jane’s patio? Why don’t we get umbrellas and pretend we’re on The Avengers? Why don’t we play Miss America, or gin rummy? Why don’t we play hide and seek after dark? Often my younger sister Ellen hoped  to be included in our pursuits but as I recall, in my rarified spot as the oldest sister, I forbade her from coming any closer than three sidewalk squares of any spot occupied by my friends or myself.  In time we all grew up. Some of us lost touch. Three of us moved away.

In all, five of us stayed in touch in various combinations, but we were never together at the same time. We were adults now and life was happening to us: careers, relationships, children. Also children, children, and children. In the last few years I found myself saying what fun it would be to rent a house somewhere and have us all come. No kids. No spouses, no responsibilities.

I don’t want to admit  that it took one of us becoming  gravely  ill to force us out of just SAYING  we should get together to YES. WE WILL GET TOGETHER. But it’s true. This spring, after our friend Jane  was well on the way to recovery, we began to plan in earnest. Texts and emails flew back and forth. Our eyes burned from scrolling through VRBO listings. But we did choose a place: Asheville, North Carolina, and booked the dates.

Five of us were to attend: Mary, Jane, Mary Beth – that’s me, Gayle, and Ellen. Mary and Jane are sisters. Ellen and I are sisters. On the appointed day I flew into Greensboro and was met by my trusty companion, Ellen. Luckily for me, Ellen nursed no grudge about having NEVER been included in our games as a child- oh, come on, she had kids her own age to play with- but she shared a little trepidation about this inaugural trip. Her concern was that she had never spent much time with Mary while growing up, because Mary is  like, even two more years older than I am. She hoped they would hit it off. I too had a valid concern. What if these girls were  drinkers of CHEAP WINE??? That would be INTOLERABLE!girls trip 2015-59

Despite these small worries, we made it to Asheville in good spirits, and as it happened, with several bottles of wine, chosen by moi, to share. Jane and Mary had  arrived first, and no doubt emboldened by imbibing some of their own wine, had boldly chosen the main bedroom for themselves. Was that OK with us, they asked. Certainly, the other three of us replied. We had carefully chosen a house with three private bedrooms and three private baths. There would be no turf wars here!girls trip 2015-2

girls trip 2015-3After deciding upon our sleeping arrangements we ventured down our mountain into downtown Asheville. Parking took awhile because each one of us had her own ideas about how and where to park, but eventually we were prowling the downtown streets with the efficiency of five disinterested cats. We approached restaurant after restaurant, read their menus and at least one of us would say, “Let’s keep walking.” “Let’s go here,” I suggested finally, winning the prize for having the first inspiration of the evening. We ducked into Zambra, which was reputed to have good tapas and drinks.

While waiting for a table, we gathered at the “confessional”. Enough said.girls trip 2015-82We each picked something to drink, I don’t recall what, and had a merry time until we were escorted to our lovely romantic table in the courtyard. girls trip 2015-87Dinner was a series of small plates. Everyone seemed satisfied  with their choices. We were a perfectly happy group of old ladies. Our trip was off to a capital start.

The next day we attended the The Big Crafty Fair, followed by dinner at the Tupelo Honey Cafe.

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They had me at AC!

girls trip 2015-85Or maybe not, because at some point we stopped in at the Book Exchange and Champagne Bar. Surveying the many nooks and crannies of the store I  could not help but wish my companions would indulge me in just one more game of hide and seek.

You know you could hide behind those chairs. And beyond them, a bookcase to the second floor!

You know you could hide behind those chairs. And beyond them, a bookcase to the second floor!

Oh well. I amused myself by taking pictures of my companions for a fictional dossier. I had to make use of all the scoop I’d had on these girls all these years!

Fact: They had more Barbie stuff than I did.

Fact: They had more Barbie stuff than I did. And they still wear matching outfits.

Fact: Her Mother used to buy Coke AND Koolaid! Lucky duck!

Fact: Her Mother used to buy Coke AND Koolaid! Lucky duck!

And our bill came in a Dr. Seuss book!

And our bill came in a Dr. Seuss book!

Monday we hit the River Arts District, where a couple of us found things we just had to have.

These ladies wanted to go home with Ellen.

These ladies wanted to go home with Ellen.

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Should we tell this man to use the inside facilities?

Should we tell this man to use the inside facilities?

We agreed.

We agreed.

This I found beautiful, but it was not for sale.

This I found beautiful, but it was not for sale.

The dossier continues. Fact: This little lady and her friend Sandra ate All the candy I had planned to serve at my slumber party, and had NO REMORSE!

The dossier continues. Fact: This little lady and her friend Sandra ate All the candy I had planned to serve at my slumber party, and had NO REMORSE!

Fact: I never even TOLD the other ladies that Ellen hung her footies to dry on the light fixture. That's loyalty.

Fact: I never even TOLD the other ladies that Ellen hung her footies to dry on the light fixture. That’s loyalty.

I’m thinking we stayed home that night and enjoyed some delicious vegetables from Ellen’s garden. girls trip 2015-51What was our dinner conversation? It was about how powerful we all are! We added up the combined years of our marriages, and of our motherhood. I can’t remember the numbers, but they were large! We marveled at how once upon a time we made pretend Barbie families, but now our lives were  completely real. Each one of us had buried a parent, tended sick family members, and faced personal disappointments. But dang it, here we were watching the sun set over the mountains, happy to be supporting one another.girls trip 2015-92girls trip 2015-57

Our feelings of power led to a rollicking game of “Catch Phrase” and I confess I have no pictures of that. Early Tuesday Gayle had to leave us because her mom was being released from the hospital. We were sad to see her go, but glad that she, as  the main caretaker of her elderly mother, had been able to join us at all. We knew how lucky we were.

After she left, Ellen tried to cheer us all up by suggesting we work a  “very easy” 250 piece  puzzle. Like the Little Red Hen, she started on it by herself and soon had it worked mostly all wrong. She thought maybe some puzzle pieces were missing, or that two puzzles were mixed up in the same box, but no..she had just done it wrong. It seemed that all the puzzle pieces were the same size and the same shape. Each piece held a word or a definition, and the two had to match correctly. Let me tell you, even the librarian among us did not know most of these vocabulary words. Eventually we all joined in the puzzle, each in our own way denouncing the mean spirited folks who could have invented such a deceptive device.

After a time we left the puzzle and went into town for some shopping and a Mediterranean lunch.girls trip 2015-89

But when we returned, there was the puzzle, mocking us silently. Thankfully Mary took the lead, gently insisting that Ellen move connected sections one piece at a time instead of brazenly shoving them across the table. I think the two of them made a good connection indeed.

Fact: I wouldn't have had the patience for this in 1968.

Fact: I wouldn’t have had the patience for this in 1968.

Finally, the thing was complete, and we could hit our normal old lady bedtimes with a sense of accomplishment. But first, a little more relaxing on the porch.girls trip 2015-96 The next morning we parted ways: Mary and Jane to Charlotte, Ellen and I to Winston Salem, where I would spend the night before returning  to Memphis.girls trip 2015-67Ellen’s husband had a lovely al fresco dinner waiting for us, and as we ate we reviewed the success of the first getaway of the Whiteway girls. We dreamed it, and we did it. All the coming year no matter what happens, we will savor our new memories. Any thoughts on where we should go next year?

A sad goodbye at the airport.

A sad goodbye at the airport.

Museums In Progress

There she was, approaching my gate in the Atlanta airport, a stylish vision, decked out in a turquoise top, carrying a pumpkin colored purse, wearing red shoes and lugging a heavy purple carryon. She was on her way to Europe for the first time, and neutral was nowhere in her color scheme. One could say she was an exhibit of a colorful, exuberant traveler. Finally, after much planning and scheming, my sister Ellen was going to accompany me to Amsterdam.

Two intrepid travelers

Two intrepid travelers

Because my husband has business in Amsterdam, I have been fortunate enough to accompany him to that lovely city many times. Amsterdam May 2015-58Typically we travel there on a Friday, arrive Saturday and have the weekend to explore before he goes to work Monday through Wednesday. I have never had any trouble amusing myself while he worked, but I often thought how wonderful it would be to show someone around the city, someone who would love it as much as I did. Someone like my sister.Amsterdam May 2015-3

We had no reservations about whether we would travel well together,  meaning we knew we would not interfere with one another’s reading, nor would either of suggest tacky tourist activities.  Ellen did later voice a secret fear that I might rush her through the museums, as I had been to them before. Although to me museums are there to be visited over and over again, I also secretly feared I might experience a feeling of let down if I did not also find something to do that was new to me. I decided to take my role as a tour guide one day at a time, and adjust our plans as needed so that we both felt satisfied.

And lo, with a sidekick to amuse me while my husband worked, all became new in Amsterdam. To my delight, every single place I took my sister had changed to some degree since last I went. What bliss  it was to spend my days with someone who “museums” the way I do. I would call my museum style slow and careful, yet humane, meaning that I read everything I want to read but I don’t overwhelm myself. I’m happy to immerse myself in exhibits and lose all track of time, but I’m not compulsive about seeing everything the museum may have on offer.

In five days we girls museumed ourselves through the Anne Frank House, The Dutch Resistance Museum, the Amsterdam Museum, The Church of Our Lord In The Attic, The Van Gogh Museum, The Stejdelik, and the Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum. Don't even try to see it in one day. Even with the audio tour, you'll get lost.

The Rijksmuseum. Don’t even try to see it in one day. Even with the audio tour, you’ll get lost.

The Stedeljik had a lovely Matisse exhibit.

The Stedelijk had a lovely Matisse exhibit.

We were fortunate enough to avoid long lines at the Anne Frank House, as we went late in the day, after being the last people out of the Amsterdam Museum.

She took her time in the museum.

She took her time in the museum.

My fears of feeling bored or let down proved groundless, as did Ellen’s fears of being rushed. I was just as riveted by the exhibits as she was. Here we were, two ladies who try to live meaningful lives, reading about how others had spent theirs. Our daytime hours were spent touring carefully curated rooms, and our evenings were spent  gloriously debriefing. Over dinner we would pose question after question to one another about the city’s history and its development, for each of us is endlessly interested in the daily lives of others. Our questions really had no answers, but we just loved to share  ideas.

Deep, philosophical discussions after a day at the museums.

Deep, philosophical discussions after a day at the museums.

Of all we discussed what we kept coming back to was the value of self expression.  Again and again we had seen and read about examples of how ordinary people dealt with extraordinary conditions using what they could, never knowing how their works would one day inspire others. Some, wrote, some painted, some made needlework,some designed fashions, some composed music, but no matter the medium, they all used art to try to make meaning out of their lives. We marveled at how creativity was used to resist tyranny, to celebrate life, to save lives, or simply to endure.

Protesting Hitler and The Third Reich

Protesting Hitler and The Third Reich

A journal of the Occupation

A journal of the Occupation

A church built in an attic...that's creative!

A church built in an attic…that’s creative!

Sewing in an Indonesian prisoner of war camp.

Sewing in an Indonesian prisoner of war camp.

And of course, Van Gogh had his struggles.

And of course, Van Gogh had his struggles.

And sometimes it's just fun to make things!

And sometimes it’s just fun to make things!

Most of us will never have articles from our lives on display behind a glass case at a museum, but what if we knew they were going to be? What creation of mine would I donate as representative of the way I have lived my life? What would I write on the little placard beside my exhibit about how writing this, or painting that, or capturing an image  with a camera helped me deal with problems unique to my time of life?

I am sure that my sister and I would qualify for some sort of nerd exhibit, in that we spent most of our waking hours poring over artifacts inside museums, while outside the most liberal city in the world was vibrating with life.

Plus, my sister was the only bare legged woman in Amsterdam, a museum worthy contribution.

Plus, my sister was the only bare legged woman in Amsterdam, a museum worthy contribution.

But aren’t we all, as we make our way through life, cataloguing and curating our own little museums, filled with our own memories and hopefully, our creative efforts? In my own collection of life memories, I am so pleased to be able to add my experiences with my  sister, the colorful traveler, in Amsterdam, to see the city through her eyes, to revisit old haunts, and to enjoy being together.  Luckily, my museum is open at all hours, and I have a lifetime membership.

It's always beautiful, and always thought provoking.

It’s always beautiful, and always thought provoking.

A Tale Of More Than Two Slippers

Before you read this I just want to whisper that though this post does mention France, that it is in no way a commentary on the recent tragedies there. Je suis Charlie.

Recently my life has reminded me a lot of the French Revolution, and more specifically of A  Tale Of Two Cities. It’s been the best of times. I am healthy, loved, housed, and employed, claims the most fortunate  of French peasants probably couldn’t have made. Yet the wagon wheels of Change have clattered their way to my gate, loudly demanding entrance. I have quaked inside my little fictional French hut, but in the end have had to open the door. I can’t say it has been the worst of times, but it hasn’t been pleasant. If you recall from your history studies, the French Revolution was a time of great upheaval. It took the storming of the Bastille, the Reign of Terror and I don’t know what all else, but in the end the monarchy and feudalism no longer existed.  Like the crusaders for change in France, I too have hoped to achieve lofty goals, except I have tried unsuccessfully to avoid the painful parts.

Here is what has happened. I have had to accept that in order to follow my creative pursuits AND be the grandmother I want to be that I must reduce my clinical social work practice considerably. And like the French Revolution, this has caused great chaos  in my psyche. I think it is all going to turn out fine, but the inner suffering has not been fun. And I’ve had to go about my daily business just as if there were not a shiny guillotine inside my head preparing to lop off  long standing therapeutic relationships and possibly my professional reputation.

In the midst of change we all seek inspiration from people who have traveled similar roads. At first, my situation seemed so unique to me that I just stumbled on alone. But after a time I found solidarity with the characters from  A Tale Of Two Cities.

First, I sent my inner doppelgänger to do my dirty work. Just as Sydney Carton took the rap for Charles Darnay, some part of me managed to tell clients that my schedule will be changing, that I will no longer take their insurance, and that they may choose to continue their therapy with someone else. The changes in my life don’t make me guilty any more than Charles Darnay was, but it felt pretty dangerous anyway. I also sent the doppelgänger out to social events over the holidays because I was so preoccupied. Sadly, the doppelgänger refused to write any blog posts for me, but no one gets everything they want.

Second, I have kept careful notice of the whole process, not to keep score as did Madame  Du Farge, but in order to be as present as possible. When I was building my practice I never thought about what it would be like to dismantle it. Like a faithful servant I supposed all of that would be taken care of by my Master when the time came. And then I realized that I am the Master, so I had better pay attention and remember. I want to honor the hard work done through the years by many courageous clients.

Third, like Dr. Mornay when he was finally released from prison, I have isolated and tried to make shoes. Really and truly. I have tried for months to make one lousy pair of slippers.  When one is under stress even the most simple task can seem monumental. All through the fall I tried to make these VERY SIMPLE felted slippers, and time after time I failed. Want to see  the lineup?

My first effort can’t be shown because  THEY FELL APART while felting. Sigh. Bought more yarn. Tried again.slippers (1 of 1)-13Wondered why they wouldn’t felt. Because I used the WRONG YARN. That’s why. Bought the correct yarn. Tried again.slippers (1 of 1)-15Finished the first slipper. Why did it look so different from the previous ones? Because I forgot to double the yarn, that’s why. Started over with doubled yarn.slippers (1 of 1)-14Finished this slipper. Washed and washed until I realized that my brand new washing machine was just not going to felt. I would have to buy a felting machine. Felt like storming the Bastille. Bought felting machine. Started over.slippers (1 of 1)-16Ripped the back of these trying to cram them on my feet. Why were they so little? Checked needle size. Wrong sized needle. Why, oh why, didn’t my doppelgänger know how to follow a simple pattern? Such are the trials of revolution. Started over.slippers (1 of 1)-9Finally a pair of slippers that seemed  like reasonable candidates for felting. Now to felt, decorate in a low key manner, because one could not tempt fate with conspicuous frippery nor appear to be a member of the aristocracy, and apply fabric paint to the soles for traction.slippers (1 of 1)-17How about these understated beauties?slippers (1 of 1)-18And here are the soles after a few celebratory wearings.

I admired  my feet in my darling little slippers. I had struggled to make these all through the time I was wrestling with the changes I needed to make in my life. I could see the parallels. The past few months have  been the best in some ways, and the worst in others. Revolution has definitely been in the air. But today, my toes are  wriggling appreciatively in their new warm slippers. Everything is going to be fine.

Knitting Dreams

Have you ever looked closely at that sweater you’re wearing, into the weave of stitches? Your sweater used to be skeins of yarn, which used to be bundles of roving, and before that, used to warm the backs of sheep grazing on a hill somewhere. A sweater is knit one stitch at a time. Loops of yarn form interlocking stitches. Stitches make rows, and in time those rows take on the shape of a garment.

I don’t know if yarn can talk, but I like to imagine that as it is knit together, each loop encourages the others to stay connected, but to flex when necessary, because in the end they must all work together to form something that has never been made before.

And then  there are the humans who knit the yarn. To envision a finished project,  to choose or design a pattern, to  be willing to join thousands of loops of yarn together into stitches and eventually into a garment takes a certain amount of risk. Knowing what the proper materials are is a job in itself. What if one chooses the wrong yarn, and one’s garment has the drape of a cement block? What if one does not adequately understand the directions, and one’s project resembles a long sleeved bra more than the sweater it was supposed to be? What if it is expensive? What if no one appreciates the hours of work and attention that went into the scarves one gave for Christmas gifts? Knitters perservere despite the risks, for the rewards are great.

pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-9

Dreams come to life in much the same way. All our lives we entertain mental pictures of what  we would like to do or make. So many times we have ideas, but get stuck in the wishing- we could- do- something- but- unfortunately- we- just- can’t- stage. But then there are those of us  who know what we want and are willing to gather the materials and to do  the work one single task at a time, investing emotionally and financially in an uncertain outcome.

Thanks to several stellar Memphis  knitters doing just that, I had the opportunity  this past weekend to participate in the inaugural annual Tenntucky Knitting Retreat at Lake Barkley, Kentucky. Three  remarkable people,  Ann, Joseph, and Rachel, saw a a creative black hole in our community and worked for a year to fill it.

I know this story because once upon a time I took a risk and showed up for a weekly knitting night, organized by the three above mentioned knitters, at a local restaurant. Let me say right now that although my knitting skills are literally laughable, I wanted to know other knitters. I wanted to feel the sense of community that comes from a gathering of folks looping yarn together one stitch at a time.

Despite my lack of skills, I was welcomed by a small group of knitters: older, younger, all more experienced then I was.  No matter what silly mistakes I had made, I knew I could ask someone at the table for help. Though I could not help anyone in return, I satisfied myself that at least my knitting foibles added some humor to the gathering. Over time I came to feel accepted for who I was, not for what I knew how to do.

With my clever listening skills  I learned that the organizers of the knit night had bigger goals in mind. They were going to organize an area  knitting retreat ALL BY THEMSELVES, and they had never done it before. Since this  Magpie is especially interested in big ideas and in what people can accomplish as a team, I was vicariously thrilled each time the Tenntucky Board accomplished another milestone in project planning.

Spots were filling quickly for the retreat. Surely I was coming,  the organizers said. Moi?asked I. I can barely knit! But as I was assured that all levels were welcomed I decided to take the plunge, and invited my sister to accompany me. Maybe, I pondered shrewdly,  HER knitting skills would prove as backward as mine, and I would not be the anomaly at the retreat.

This past Friday evening approximately fifty knitters from several states checked in to the lovely Lake Barkley Lodge.

Source: KentuckyLake.com

Source: KentuckyLake.com

And so began a magical weekend which  included restful views, pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-30  opportunities to commune with nature,pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-7

time to reflect,

One with nature, even in windy weather.

One with nature, even in windy weather.

plentiful food, friendly staff, informative classes, and color, color, color.pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-34

How delightful it was that our organizers  had thought of everything! All of their advance  planning, networking and plain old elbow grease came together just like a well knit sweater. I remembered snippets of conversation about vendors, goodie bags and the like. Now I would  benefit from the fruits of their labor.

pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-8

And the knitters? If you did not already know this, knitters are special people. They’re friendly and welcoming. They want you to sit for a spell and knit up a few stitches and share a story or two, or even sit in companionable silence.

pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-39 Having never been to a knitting retreat I was unprepared for the exquisite l hand knit items worn by my fellow retreatants.  I asked if I could take pictures of their stunning work and they all said yes.That’s how special knitters are! Take a look:

pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-22

pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-19pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-21pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-2pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-4I CAN’T STOP!!!
pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-10

pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-20pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-11Whom did we meet? Why we met Kelly, who makes her own earrings out of knitting needles. And her brother, who surprised her with the gift of this retreat! We met Jo, who is studying to become a master knitter. We met Charlotte who didn’t learn to knit until after the age of 60. Charlotte wore a skirt she had knitted herself, by the way. We met the Haus of Yarn vendor who stayed up late Saturday night to felt our knitted slippers. No comment on mine, bet here are my sister’s:

pictures of retreat (1 of 1)I didn’t get a chance to meet everyone but I feel as though I did; that’s just the community vibe that exists among knitters.

On Saturday my sister and I took a gauge class and a crochet class.

Sadly I did not have the prerequisite skill  for the  crochet class, which was knowing how to crochet. Oops! Someone helped me anyway!

Sadly I did not have the prerequisite for the class, which was knowing how to crochet. Oops! Someone helped me anyway!

One of the teachers evidently knew  me, for she used phrases such as “the difference between homemade and handmade’, and mentioned how it feels to give disclaimers along with our knitted gifts. Here is  your sweater, Uncle Alvin. Just don’t turn around while wearing it.

After the classes were over we met for a rousing game of Last Knitter Standing.

pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-24Full disclosure compels me to say that my sister’s and my singing during timed knitting contests did not help anyone at our table to win. Anyone for a couple of verses of “Twist and Shout?”

Lake Barkley is one of those places where the whole time you are there you are planning your return visit, for there is more to do there than can be done in one weekend.  Every chance we got we sat in rockers on our balcony, gazing at the water and taking in the deep calming sounds of the natural world.

pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-28pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-32We just didn’t have time to do everything Lake Barkley  has to offer.  But we did manage to fit in some ping pong and pinball down in the rec room.

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Too soon it was Sunday and time to go. But not before we shopped with the vendors who had kindly visited us. Knitters patiently waited their chance to run their hands over luscious hanks of yarn and choose their own patterns.

pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-35pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-36As we drove away we exulted in the success of the weekend. From door prizes to pencils on the tables to write down gauge measurements, our organizers gave great attention to detail and it showed. Packed in the back of the car were our goodie bags full of free patterns, needles, and yarn. Some participants went home with stunning door prizes.We were inspired by what we had seen other knitters doing, and eager to improve our own knitting. pictures of retreat (1 of 1)-37

Our hearts were full of gratitude to the organizers  for having the wherewithal to do what many may dream about but never accomplish. How did this trio manage to put on this amazing weekend? I don’t have the slightest idea, but I suspect they did it together, one painstaking step at a time, connecting and bending as necessary, to form something that had never been done before.

P. S. : They’ve set the date for next year. Interested? Check out Tenntucky on Ravelry or contact Joseph at ACallToYarns. I don’t think he’ll mind my giving out his contact info. Knitters are neighborly like that.